Have you made a clean break with the past?
I remember heading to college as a freshman. I was so ready to have a new life beyond my high school and the town where I had grown up. I was ready for a place where more people attended orchestra concerts than football games. I was ready to study along side people who were passionate about learning. I was ready for a new beginning.
When I arrived at Oberlin Conservatory, I did indeed enter a new life. I had a roommate to hang out with, but we also had to work out our boundaries—including the rule that if you used an alarm clock, then you had to commit to actually turning it off when it buzzed in the early morning. I learned the expectations of the conservatory and my academic classes, sometimes with painful bumps in the road—like getting my first English paper back and finding I needed to spend time with the writing tutor. College offered a lot more freedom than I had previously experienced, but I quickly realized that this was not an extended summer camp experience. I had responsibilities that went along with my privileges, and I had to figure out how to follow through.
In today’s Old Testament, we read the familiar words of the 10 Commandments. You could preach a thousand sermons on the commandments themselves, but I am interested in the context of these words. It’s a story of a clean break.
In Exodus chapter 20, we stand with Moses and the people of Israel at a pivotal point in their history. The people had lived in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. God had seen their suffering, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt into freedom. Now Moses and the people stand together at Mount Sinai, and God renews the covenant that God had first made with Noah and his family, then Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The 10 Commandments are a promise made on both sides-- God’s lasting commitment to Israel, and their complete loyalty to God in return.
It was an opportunity for the Israelites to make a clean break with their past in Egypt. They had been rescued by God, and could claim their identity as God’s chosen people, not slaves. But this was not exactly easy to do. As slaves, they had been told what to do. They cowered in fear before Pharaoh. Life was hard, but it was uncomplicated. Now outside Egypt they had a lot of choices. God wanted a relationship of faithfulness, not fear. God wanted a people who freely choose to follow God’s ways, not slaves to order around.
The 10 Commandments were an opportunity for the people address these questions about how to live as God’s people in this new era. On the other side of their clean break with the past, they needed to establish boundaries for living in both freedom and responsibility. They needed to establish a new normal.
The new normal described in the 10 Commandments had two parts. The first is often referred to as the first tablet, since God wrote the commandments on two tablets of stone. These first commandments are all about how the people of Israel were to relate to God. The first commandment sets the tone: I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods before me. God claims first place in the lives of God’s people. Period. God is the provider, the liberator, the guide. Loyalty and love are the people’s part of the bargain, including recognizing God’s powerful name and keeping the Sabbath practice of reorienting ourselves to God.
The second tablet turns toward our relationships to other people and the world around us. These commandments protect families and communities from the worst of harm. The prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and jealous desire lead to a break down in relationships and community life. But within these commandments there is freedom—the freedom to enjoy life with regular rest and recreation of the sabbath, the joy of family honors each generation. And so the 10 Commandments were God’s attempt to start again with the people of Israel, and to build back better after their long confinement in Egypt.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the last in-person worship we shared before the pandemic shut down. We haven’t been in Egypt, but we have had our own long confinement! Thinking of this, I have been talking with people about whether the pandemic has been a clean break with the past. The answer has been mixed. Yes, some say, it was a clean break, in the sense that it stopped us in our tracks. As a result, in the past year we have had to re-evaluate almost everything we do. We ask ourselves, is it necessary? Is it worth the risk? How are other people affected? We have had to both pare our lives back to essentials, and at the same time, learn to be creative with the opportunities and resources we have.
But the other side of the question is, no, this hasn’t been a clean break from our past. And the thought there was that many of the same problems that led us to this place persist, in society and in ourselves. We want a clean break from inequity, but the pandemic has actually made the top 10% and especially the top 1% even richer. We want an end to systemic racism, but the pandemic has put a spotlight on the ways our institutions favor white people and put people of color at the back of the line. And in our personal lives, our social outlets have been narrowed, highlighting the challenges within our own families and the baggage we would like to leave behind. In so many ways, we are still longing for a clean break with what holds us back.
Perhaps that’s why I feel so drawn to this passage in Exodus. Because despite the limitations of the people of Israel, God still choses to work with them. God saw their need for relationship, for guidance and freedom, for instruction and practice. The people of Israel at Mount Sinai were back at square one, they were given a new beginning. The 10 Commandments and the 40 years of wilderness living that followed were a chance to go back to school and learn again what it means to be God’s people. It was a chance to build back better than before.
I think we may be at a similar junction. The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to evaluate who we want to be and how we will get there. It is an opportunity to think again about how we live faithfully with God, and how we live with fairness and care for all members of the human family. We ask ourselves as individuals, families, and communities: What from our past do we need to leave behind? What aspects of who we have been do we want to keep? What have we learned during this time of pandemic that we want to continue? It may not truly be a clean break with the past, but it is an opportunity for a reset. Like the Israelites at Sinai, this wilderness time is an opportunity for us to go back to school, to listen carefully to God, so that we may build back better—more faithfully, with more freedom and joy.
But mark my words—the wilderness is a challenging place. There is a lot of uncertainty in this time of new beginnings. There are lots of questions we have yet to answer. A whole generation died before the Israelites got to the promised land, we too have endured losses. Our temptation will be like that of the Israelites—let’s go back to Egypt! At least there we were familiar with the confines of our existence.
And that is also why this story of the 10 Commandments is so great for us. Because in it God stands by the promises God already made. God says, I am the LORD your God. I am yours, and you are mine. Nothing can separate you from me. I am here to provide for you in the desert, I am here to lead you to the next place. I am here to help you build back better than before.
God speaks those words of promise not only to the Israelites long ago, but also to us today. God is here to guide us in our journey from the things that enslave us to greater freedom. God is here to provide for us what we truly need. Within these promises we find relationship and purpose: God is for us, and we are for God. We can live and trust in that promise, and with God’s guidance, build back better.